Our debt to Lucien Bouchard

Our debt to Lucien Bouchard

Jean-François Lisée

Toronto Star, January 13, 2001



A leader like no other, a man of compassion,
a legacy of strength
Jean-François Lisée

He has gone. Gone because he could not reach the main objective that had brought him there: to make Quebec a country. But if anyone had the guts, the boldness, the will, the ability to bring people together and the strength to carry this off, it was he.

The admission of his own powerlessness in the face of Quebec’s political dilemma, which he delivered with openness and dignity in the National Assembly, was all the more eloquent given that his accomplishments are enough to earn praise for the leaders of several governments at once. Instead of being repelled by difficulty, he was drawn to it.

Back in early 1996, who would have believed that this man who was initially poorly versed in finances, the leader of a party more inclined to generosity than economy and the premier of a people that had grown used to credit, oblivious to the ticking time bomb of debt, would lead a colossal effort to eliminate the deficit? The surveys carried out at that time gave the answer: less than 20 percent of Quebeckers. Who would have believed that he would do so without plunging Québec into social upheaval, and so well that subsequently he was able to reduce taxes and reinvest in education, in health, in children?

Because he dared to tackle issues head on, to throw himself into them completely, to use his knowledge and his talents, like his charm and his authority, he is leaving to the Quebec people of the year 2001 a collective structure that is more solid and that affords greater solidarity than the one he had inherited.

At this moment when he is facing up to his responsibility towards history, we owe it to him to talk about the role he played in the accelerated movement towards modernization that Quebec has experienced over the past five years, a time of great works, comparable to those presided over by Jean Lesage and later by René Lévesque during his first mandate.

Bringing the once-fragile Quebec finances back on track is his most important achievement. It was he who set the objective. He who had the respect of union and management leaders – a rare mix – and who brought them together to agree on a plan to fix Quebec’s financial problems; he who time and again put brinkmanship to its best possible use. It was he who threw himself in up to his neck, along with minister Jacques Léonard, in negotiating the reduction in the government payroll and then, with Rémy Trudel, getting the municipalities to pick up $500 million toward wiping out the deficit.

He was the one who went to New York to argue his case before a group of incredulous analysts to prevent them from downgrading Quebec’s rating once again. He succeeded in this through the sheer force of his determination to do what these analysts, like Quebeckers themselves, held to be impossible. It was he who then made sure, as he had sworn to himself, that never again would Quebec’s finances push a premier to make this pilgrimage, this stark testimony to Quebec’s weakness at the time.

Bernard Landry, the real architect behind the Quebec government’s activism in boosting employment and in creating the tax climate needed for Quebec’s technological sector to take off, was a steadfast ally in the fight to bring the deficit down to zero. But he himself would have no trouble admitting that the driving force behind this enterprise was the Premier. Together, as François Mitterrand and Pierre Mauroy had done with the French Socialist Party in the early 1980s, the Bouchard/Landry duo was able to reconcile the Parti québécois – in other words, half the Quebec political family – to the demands of economic growth. The work was long, beneficial and lasting.

Less widely known is the fact that, while all of this was going on, with painful effects in a number of areas, it was Lucien Bouchard’s idea to allocate considerable amounts to extend economic security to children. It was at his request and at his offices that senior officials came up with the most generous family policy on the continent. Only the main component is remembered today: $5 day care. But along with it was the unified benefit program, which covered the essential needs of all children from low-income families for the first time. The idea was so sound and good that the federal government has since adopted it and has taken up almost this entire domain. The children of Canada thus owe a debt of gratitude to Lucien Bouchard for having decided – not without some rumblings among his cabinet colleagues- that he could not wait to balance the budget before coming up with and investing the necessary funds in children and in a healthy balance between work and family life. Families in British Columbia, which has just imported the Quebec concept of day care, should also take off their hats to him.

Within the next decade, Quebec will be the only place in the world where women have pay equity in the private sector as well as in the public sector. This is a sign of considerable social progress. This was not Lucien Bouchard’s idea originally; far from it. But at one point the draft legislation on pay equity was politically and clinically dead. I witnessed Lucien Bouchard pick up the pieces, change the parameters, breathe new life back into it, and impose it on employers, at the risk of derailing the economic summit of the fall of 1996, which was so important to him.

An incarnation of the Third Way


A neo-liberal, Lucien Bouchard? Compared to whom? In the ruckus surrounding the discussions over some artificially inflated figures on poverty in Quebec – with in fact the number of people on welfare actually is plummeting rapidly – who ever mentions the fact that for the past four year claimants too disabled to enter the labour force have a guarantee from the Quebec government that no reforms will come along and cut off their indexed earnings? This Bouchard policy is called « the zero impoverishment clause », for which we are still seeking an equivalent elsewhere. If you think the Quebec law protecting young employees against wage discrimination is too soft, try to come up with another one somewhere else that goes half as far.

Yes, he put the economy at the centre of the debate and. Yes, in a society that exports 60 percent of everything it produces, it was time for a PQ leader to affirm loud and clear that Quebec’s collective wealth depends on the ability of businesses to compete. Otherwise, Quebeckers will no longer be able to afford their considerable level social democracy. Yes, he thinks that reducing the regulatory burden is a factor in this ability to compete. But who remembers that he was the one who reduced the normal work week from 44 to 40 hours, after which time-and-a-half is earned, that he increased the minimum wage in Quebec more quickly than anywhere else on the continent? He is leaving behind a Quebec which, according to Statistics Canada, is the place in North America where income disparities are the lowest. Yes, he appointed as head of Hydro-Québec someone who wanted to and could make it more profitable. But he never dreamed of privatizing this public asset.

For the past several years, spearheaded by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, there has been a movement referred to as the Third Way. What we have are social democratic governments that have come to accept the imperatives of the market economy and of competition, but that refuse to submit society as a whole to the dogmas of neo-liberalism. These international meetings of social and economic modernity are attended by, in addition to Tony Blair, Clinton from the U.S., Jospin from France, Schroder from Germany, and a few others. I always thought that Lucien Bouchard should have been there. The government he led is the very incarnation of the Third Way.

Without being actively involved in this, he was at times a detonator and a times a source of undying support in the resolution of other issues that had been haunting the Quebec landscape for decades, and that have now been settled for Quebec’s greatest good.

He supported Pauline Marois in the restructuring of the old web of school boards along language lines and in reducing their number – one of the high-wire acts the minister performed superbly. He was there for Louise Harel in her efforts to repatriate jurisdiction over labour force training, a demand made for 32 years.

He supported Yves Rochon in setting up the only drug insurance plan on the continent. Some find it is expensive. Say this to the senior citizens from New York who charter buses to come across the Quebec border to purchase drugs which, if they bought them where they live, would be higher than their meagre incomes. Unlike those in the wealthy U.S., Quebec seniors no longer have to worry about the cost of their prescriptions pushing them towards the brink of bankruptcy. One million low-income Quebeckers who formerly had no insurance now have this security and – Lucien Bouchard’s trademark once again – all children in Quebec are covered free of charge.

He gave Guy Chevrette the political authority he needed to empower civil society and in expanding its voice in local economic development. I would suspect that in a few years some researcher from Wisconsin or Oslo will be singing the praises of the way Quebec tackles this issue. In the end, it will be seen as an important legacy of the Bouchard era.

A practitioner of civic nationalism


He is the one who gave the go-ahead to an active policy of hiring members of minorities in the public service, in the order of 25 percent of new employees (« Why not 33 percent? », he asked, anxious to make up for the historical delay). No other government, Liberal or PQ, had addressed this.

Relations with the Anglophone community, which are always troublesome with a sovereignist government, are more peaceful today than at many moments during the Liberal reign under Robert Bourassa. And relations with the aboriginal peoples? Despite the obstacles, the Bouchard/Chevrette duo gave rise to more agreements, more pragmatism, more progress than at any other time since René Lévesque. With Lucien Bouchard, it was civic nationalism applied.

At an international level, Lucien Bouchard carefully cultivated Quebec’s essential relationship with France, going there approximately every year-and-a-half, giving them a more resolutely economic and technological content and building with Alain Juppé, and then Lionel Jospin, personal ties founded on the considerable mutual esteem they felt for one another. More importantly, he focussed on redirecting Quebec’s efforts towards the United States, going there at least four times a year in an official capacity and reinvesting, this year in the network of delegations. With Louise Beaudoin, he also opened up a Latin-American policy, with his missions to Mexico and Argentina and the idea of a Quebec decade for the Americas. In doing so he made sure that Quebec’s priorities abroad were properly positioned on two essential moorings: France and Europe on the one side, the U.S. and the Americas on the other.

Then, before leaving, he wanted to leave one other major legacy in his work of building Quebec. He put an intensive effort into municipal amalgamation, behind Louise Harel, and resolved once and for all, in the manner he had chosen, another issue that had thus far been considered unsolvable: that of the mega-city. At the same time, he gave Quebec a national capital worthy of this name.

Is that all? No. Listing all his accomplishments would take too long. If you had only seen him negotiating, late into the night, during the summit conference on agriculture, in order to bring the dairy industry into the age of exports. If you had only seen him doubling the budget for public libraries while at the same time launching on his own initiative a future symbol of the value of reading: the Grande bibliothèque. If you had only seen him above all during the ice storm, coordinating efforts, directing operations, feeling the distress into his very bones, reassuring the hundreds of thousands of temporary refugees every evening. The strength and compassion he was able to express during those icy days brought inestimable comfort.

What about sovereignty ?


And sovereignty, the most important issue of all? How was it, they ask, that his pure energy, his boundless determination was not focused on this objective? But it was, in his own way. His wager, which he explained so clearly into every microphone and in every speech, was that the voices missing from the Yes vote in 1995 were related to Quebeckers’s economic insecurity. He had good reasons for believing this. And we had good reasons for following him. Once this massive effort had been completed, with the pain we all know, he thought he would be able to hold a successful referendum and, with this solid foundation, bring about a successful sovereignty.

Even so, on this issue as on all others, Lucien Bouchard was on the lookout for good opportunities for speeding things up. In the spring of 1996, after the first economic summit, he was outraged at the legal intervention on the part of the federal government intended to rob Quebec of its right to determine its own future (the Bertrand case, which ultimately led to C-20). Publicly, and then before the cabinet, the caucus and the Bureau national of the Parti québécois – as the newspapers reported at the time – he suggested that an election be called on this theme in the near future, thereby regaining the right to hold a referendum, and perhaps to hold it in the wake of this. He saw winning conditions, was put in the minority by each of these entities, and decided – to my very great chagrin- to give in to the general sentiment.

Then, the moment had passed, and the tunnel of budget cuts had to be gone through. He hoped that with the Quebec election of November 1998 he would obtain a sufficient mandate to try the referendum in the following mandate. The people of Quebec said no. He was still counting on them to give him the signal, two years later, in the federal election of November 2000, counting on the fact that there were still some embers beneath the apparent passivity. He could only observe that Quebecers were pulling away in increasing numbers, unfortunately convinced both that the problem was escalating (three out of four Quebecers believe the situation is worsening between Quebec and Canada) and that there was no solution.

The drama is there: His attempt succeeded only half-way. Today, more Quebecers than in ’95 are convinced that Quebec has the economic strength to make sovereignty a success. But burned by a second referendum failure, scared by new obstacles added by the federal government, many of them have legitimately come to believe that there will be failure on referendum day itself. There is some truth in that, but it leads us further into the impasse. While Bouchard was springing one lock, another, more pernicious, was taking its place.

Facing this wall, Bouchard was on one hand opposed to purely gung-ho proposals, and on the other hand incapable — he who had lived through Meech — of plunging back into an attempt of reforming the federation from the inside. Once the federal election results were in, he drew the painful conclusion that he would never fulfil his dream; he owed it to his sense of duty, to his commitment to transparency and honesty, to inform his party members and his fellow citizens without delay. He did so Thursday, expressing every truth and every emotion he held.

In 1996 he had affirmed that he wanted to make Quebec a sovereign country before the beginning of the third millennium, which he set at January 1, 2001. And what has he done? He has made sure that Quebec is in good shape for the new century He has vividly renewed the Quebec model, thus participating like no other in the widespread momentum that Quebec society is currently experiencing on almost all fronts.

Quebec had the privilege of having as its leader, not only a head of state, but a great head of state. It did not, alas, give him the strength to make it a state.


Jean-François Lisée is a former senior political adviser to Lucien Bouchard and an architect of the Parti Quebecois drive for independence. He also is the author of Sortie de secours, a book published last February that sparked an important debate on the future of Quebec.